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Archive for the ‘Thrillers’ Category

http://contentcafe2.btol.com/ContentCafe/jacket.aspx?UserID=EBSWL87077&Password=CC38621&Return=1&Type=L&Value=9781781162644Stephen King has been particularly prolific in the last several years, putting out one or more novels annually. As a relatively new Stephen King fan, I had to check out 2013’s Joyland, King’s second novel after 2005’s The Colorado Kid for the Hard Case Crime imprint. As usual, King was full of surprises.

I was expecting a rather straightforward murder mystery, but found myself consumed by something larger — an often sweet, sometimes weepy coming-of-age story whose characters have stayed with me long after finishing the book. I didn’t expect to be so touched, but of course, this is Stephen King so I should have anticipated the unexpected.

Devin Jones is a broke 21-year-old college student who takes a job at a carnival in North Carolina during the summer of 1973. As Devin gets to know the colorful regulars who work at the park, he learns of the tragedy that happened some four years earlier. A young woman named Linda Gray had been killed in the park’s Horror House, a haunted house ride. Ms. Gray had been thrown onto the ride’s tracks by an unidentified man. Carnival employees claim that they see Gray’s ghost, at various times, hanging around the Horror House. Devin is intrigued by the story and embarks on an investigation to uncover Linda Gray’s killer, who may still be alive and lurking around.

This is the set-up for the book; however, the most intriguing parts of the story, the real meat of the book, had very little to do with the Linda Gray murder mystery. Rather, the most intriguing parts of the story had more to do with Devin’s journey to adulthood. You see, Devin Jones is nursing a broken heart. Still pining for his college sweetheart who dumped him – a woman who no longer has feelings for him, if she ever did – the Linda Gray murder mystery provides Devin with a welcome, albeit disturbing, distraction.

Along the way, Devin meets Mike (an outgoing young boy who is dying from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) and Annie (young Mike’s reclusive mother who may be hiding some kind of secret). While Mike’s enthusiasm for squeezing the most out of a life that is slipping away prompts the depressive Devin to consider his own life anew, Devin discovers with the thirty-something-year-old Annie a deeper attachment than he’d ever had with the college sweetheart who broke his heart.

Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie dovetails with the Linda Gray murder mystery in interesting ways. Even so, the murder mystery itself is almost pushed to the background until the very end of the novel. That’s okay though, because what we grow to care most about is Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie and Devin’s growth as a person.

The power of Joyland the novel derives, in part, from its strong sense of place. Joyland the carnival feels so real because Stephen King immerses you – the reader of Joyland — in the language of “carnies” (carnival workers). For example, “wearing the fur” means donning the costume of the park’s mascot Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining the visiting kids, an act Devin becomes intimately familiar with. And a “conie” is an unsuspecting visitor, one who can be easily conned or manipulated.

Joyland is a tearjerker, so get the tissues ready. Joyland is also oddly uplifting, and the pay-off at the end is well worth the ride. If you’d prefer to check out the audiobook version of Joyland, don’t hesitate, because Michael Kelly does an excellent job of narration.

Check the WRL Catalog for Joyland

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chewTony Chu is a detective for the Philadelphia Police Department. He’s skinny, but for good reason. Tony is a cibopathic: a person who can see the past of every food he eats. For fruits and vegetables, that’s not so bad, but for meat it is another matter. The only food he can eat without distraction is beets, so he eats a lot of them. In the alternative world he lives in, all poultry products have been banned after bird flu killed over 23 million people. Tony and his partner track down black market chicken distributors and buyers like our police forces go after drug lords.

While trying to do a major bust, Tony accidentally ingests some soup that the chef bled into while cutting the vegetables. His powers make him aware that the chef is actually a serial murderer with thirteen victims. In his quest to find out more information about the murdered girls, Tony is caught chewing on the body of the now dead chef, which understandably leads to his getting fired by the police department. But he gets noticed by agents of the now very powerful FDA, who are very interested in using his gifts to solve murders as part of their Special Crimes Unit.

Here’s the biggest part of the storyline you have to swallow (groan!): Tony must consume parts of the people who have been murdered in order to gain clues. And not all bodies are fresh (or human) either. If you can get past the disturbing nature of this item, the story continues in a lively manner, drawing you in before you realize it. It’s partly absurd comedy, partly cop procedural, partly adventure, partly horror, and all entertainment.

Winner of both Harvey and Eisner awards, this series is bizarre but compelling and enjoyable. It is recommended for readers of horror, humor, and graphic novels.

Search the catalog for CHEW.

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big miracle 2012I’m usually a sucker for animal rescue stories and films (just look at some of my previous posts, including this one.).  While vacationing at the beach last week, I was presented with the opportunity to watch this movie, and I hesitated, wondering if I wanted to spend my valuable beach time watching yet another movie about animals that need to be rescued.  Well, I was glad I did, because The Big Miracle is exceptional for several reasons:

One extremely cute family of three whales, including an adorable baby whale, that get trapped in the ice five miles from the shoreline near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Their desperate calls for help are very moving.

Some extremely hazardous weather conditions,  including temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit , high winds, blizzards, and treacherous ice, mean that their chances of survival are slim, and make for exciting drama.

An extremely unlikely group of people join together to help these poor whales, including a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a wealthy oil tycoon (Ted Danson), a local TV news reporter (John Krasinski), and a local Inuit tribal elder (John Pingayak).  A typical movie like this pits the good-guy activist against the bad-guy industrialist, so it’s refreshing to see them all working together for once, even if they have ulterior motives for helping.

The actions of this group bring about some amazing results.  The local TV news reporter, who first discovers the whales, does a feature report about their plight for the local Anchorage news. The story is picked up by the national news, and quickly goes international. Before long, thousands of reporters from all over the world are descending on little Barrow, Alaska.

More importantly, the news reports bring people to the town who think that they can help in the rescue operation, including two brothers from Minnesota who have invented a de-icing machine.

The situation on the ground quickly becomes desperate, as the rescuers race around the clock and face crisis after crisis to save these whales.  I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that it involves a lot of ingenuity on the ground and help from the Alaska National Guard and an icy neighbor of the United States. And I won’t say if all three of these whales make it out alive (oops, maybe I have said too much).

This exciting, feel-good movie is based on true events in 1988 as set forth in Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales.  The acting is top-rate, and I especially enjoyed Drew Barrymore as the Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer.  In one scene she dives under water to check on the health of the whales, which I found to be very memorable and sad.

I also enjoyed watching media clips from 1988 of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings when they were still in their prime. This gives the movie a sense of authenticity (reminding viewers that this was a real story) as well as a sense of nostalgia for older viewers like myself who remember watching these famous TV news anchors.

The Big Miracle is an exciting movie that I highly recommended watching, on or off the beach.

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naturalsIf you enjoy television shows like Criminal Minds or  CSI or Cold Case, or any of the many TV dramas that involve solving criminal cases in an hour, you should pick up the YA novel The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

Cassie is a 17-year-old with a gift for reading people. At the beginning of the book she’s working in a diner using her gift of picking up subtle details to figure out what kind of eggs a customer might order, or if they are likely to skip on the check. She catches the attention of an FBI agent named Briggs who has developed an experimental program  that uses gifted teens to help solve cold cases.

He asks Cassie to join his group of “naturals” so she can develop her skills. Cassie doesn’t have anything to lose. Her dad is serving overseas in the military and her mother, who taught her much of what she knows about reading people, was murdered years ago. With little to keep her in Denver with her grandmother and the hope that maybe she can learn something about her mother’s unsolved murder, she agrees to join the eclectic group and work for the FBI.

The “naturals” live together in a house in Quantico, Virginia, near FBI headquarters. She meets Michael, the handsome rebel who reads emotions, but doesn’t like to be read himself; Dean, the other profiler, who is the son of a convicted murderer; Lia, who specializes in deception and sarcasm; and Sloane, the computer nerd whose gift is  numbers and probability. The characters are easy to distinguish and likeable–if also somewhat stereotypical.

The plot moved along quickly and kept me entertained.  Interspersed with the training exercises and the teens getting to know one another (in part through a risky game of “Truth or Dare”) are chilling chapters from a serial killer–a killer who seems to be escalating in the number and brutality of murders… a killer who targets Cassie as the next victim.

The Naturals is listed as the first in a series.  I couldn’t find out when #2 is due, but will stay on the lookout.

Check the WRL catalog for The Naturals

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for the book 

Check the catalog for the ebook

Check the catalog for the DVD

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I don’t know about you, but when I hear about the history of grave robbers digging up fresh corpses in the night to conduct medical experiments, my imagination goes to England, with the stories of men like Burke and Hare. But why? Young America also had doctors who needed to learn anatomy. How did our early surgeons learn their craft?

ResurrectionistMatthew Guinn takes this subject matter and gives it an even better twist in his debut novel The Resurrectionist. His story combines the historical novel with a contemporary thriller. Guinn uses two narrative threads.

In the present, young Dr. Jacob Thacker is on suspension for Xanax abuse and banned from practice; he has become the publicity officer for a South Carolina medical school. His dean’s pet project, a renovation, uncovers a dark secret from the school’s past: a store of bones used by long-ago anatomy students, bones that came entirely from slaves or recently-freed African Americans. Thacker wants to uncover the story behind the bones, while his boss pressures him to cover up the story and prevent protests so the renovation can continue.

The second story line takes us back to the past, and slowly reveals the history of those bones under the building. Here the lead character is Nemo Johnston, a resurrectionist hired by the school to procure human bodies in a time when animal corpses were often used unsuccessfully to learn anatomy and medical schools were chaotic, unregulated affairs. Nemo eventually rises to become the anatomy instructor at the school. The kicker? Nemo is himself an African-American, a recently freed slave who through sheer ability becomes the anatomy instructor for students who still don’t view him as their societal equal.

What happens to a grave robber hated by one community for stealing his people’s bodies and resented by another for rising beyond his expected station? Will Jacob protect his career or go public with the story that he slowly uncovers? Read The Resurrectionist to find the answers to these and other questions in a novel that handles questions of race with sensitivity and unpacks the vaults of history while spinning a fascinating yarn.

Check the WRL catalog for The Resurrectionist

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lexiconYou aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.

Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.

Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.

Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.

Check the WRL catalog for Lexicon

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HarvestThe psychologically disturbing horrors of the evil-doers in this medical thriller made my spine tingle. Even though I found it hard to believe some of the sticky situations these characters found themselves in, I found myself believing that such corruption, immorality, and greed might indeed be possible in the medical community and I now possess a new suspicion of doctors and hospital systems.

Gerritsen’s adrenaline-charged thrillers followed her earlier career in romantic suspense, but her focus on the medical settings in these crime thrillers is what got my attention. That, and the constantly moving plot of this intricately layered story about a very promising medical resident-cum-amateur detective, Dr. Abby DiMatteo, who finds herself uncovering clues to the disturbing possibility that extremely wealthy heart transplant recipients may be jumping to the head of the non-discriminating transplant list while other patients with a legitimate place lose their lives. Even more disturbing is the possible source of the “donated” organs. From the very first chapter, fascinating characters are introduced in separate plotlines such that the reader suspects but doesn’t know for sure how each of the characters will be connected later on. This was a great stand-alone read with a very satisfying ending. It’s not the entry into a series and it’s one of her early thrillers, but I didn’t find anything about it out of place in time. A romantic plot is threaded into the story as well.

The knowledge that the author was a real-life doctor before she turned to full-time writing gives me confidence in her ability to accurately portray medical students, residents, and practicing physicians. Lovers of suspense and mystery will love Harvest, and the themes are so disturbingly chilling that even horror fans might enjoy Tess Gerritsen, who also incorporates the supernatural into some of her novels.

Look for Harvest in the WRL catalog.

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PostmortemPostmortem is Patricia Cornwell’s first medical thriller featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta and homicide detective Pete Marino, set in Richmond, Virginia. I tried to keep my reading confined to the audiobook in my car, but I found myself taking it to bed with me every night and not falling asleep until I’d listened through at least two CDs per night. I hadn’t read a “coroner” story or watched very many TV shows (no more than a few CSI episodes) on this topic of forensic pathology since one of my old favorites, Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman, in the late 70s to early 80s, so I’m delighted to rekindle my odd fascination with the gory details of autopsies and forensic investigation. I don’t feel bad about this considering that Cornwell’s tales seem to have taken up permanent residence on the bestseller lists. I’m pretty stoked that I’ll now be able to read or listen to more than 20 books in the Kay Scarpetta series, and I’ve also now discovered a number of other writers of suspense-filled medical thrillers to add to my reading list.

Scarpetta is a strong, female leading character (Quince was quite the chauvinist, as I recall). In this first novel, she’s obviously up against male characters who think she does not belong in her position as Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. She also has to gain the confidence and respect of her sidekick, detective Pete Marino, who reappears throughout the series. The pairing of a medical expert with a legal or police professional seems to be a very effective device in this style of literature, one that has proven successful in a number of series and TV shows. I really enjoyed the character development in Postmortem. Pete and Kay don’t get along well at first, but over time they recognize each other’s unique talents and slowly develop an awkward rapport tinged with sarcasm and a bit of humor that promises to develop further into the series. The ending was unpredictable and the inevitable dangerous situation the characters get themselves into could not have been resolved without their loyalty to each other and teamwork.

The medically fascinating details in these books showcase some of the latest technological advancements in forensic pathology through the years. Some might find it odd to deal with Cornwell’s older books and the now-obsolete computer technologies and medical practices, but others may enjoy it, sort of like opening a time capsule. Her latest novels continue to incorporate modern techniques and equipment being used in the real world of medicine, virtual autopsies for example.

This review is not for those who are already loyal fans of Patricia Cornwell. It’s to alert readers newly interested in fast-paced medical thrillers that we have her series of books in the library just waiting for your discovery! Check the WRL catalog for Postmortem, in print or in audiobook on CD.

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Another true crime review written by Bud:

On the morning of January 8, 1937, the corpse of a young woman named Pamela Werner was found lying in a ditch beneath the supposedly haunted Fox Tower on the outskirts of Peking, China. Brutally murdered and savagely mutilated, the girl was only identifiable by her diamond-studded platinum wrist watch and the singular grey color of the iris in one of her slashed eyes.  The story of this murder and its ensuing police investigation are related in the terrific true-crime thriller, Midnight in Peking by Paul French.

Peking in the 1930s was a fascinating mixture of clashing cultures. The British lived quite comfortably inside a large walled section of the city known as the Legation Quarter. Outside of this area resided the Chinese nationals and a combustible mix of expats of all nationalities. Overshadowing everything was the impending threat of the Japanese Army, which had invaded China and was slowly making its way towards the city.

Amidst this turmoil the death of one girl seemed of little importance. But Pamela was the daughter of a former British consul, and had apparently been killed in Chinese territory, which could potentially make the case a political hot potato. To diplomatically resolve the problem, two detectives, one Chinese, Col. Han Shih-ching, and one British, a former Scotland Yard officer named Richard Dennis, were assigned to work the murder together.

Their queries took them from the debauched soirees of the insular Brits to the depraved dives of the lowest Chinese slums, but current events, hidden agendas and meddling superiors stymied the investigation and prevented them from bringing the case to a satisfactory resolution. Furious at this turn of events, Pamela’s grieving father took up the case and relentlessly pursued it. He hounded officials at home and abroad and drove himself into poverty trying to identify her killer and bring him to justice. The details of what he was eventually able to uncover about his daughter’s murder are heinous and heartbreaking.

Midnight in Peking is both an intriguing mystery and a colorful evocation of a famous city at a pivotal point in time. The author, Paul French, lives in Shanghai and is an expert in Chinese culture. This fast-paced, engrossing tale is recommended for true crime buffs and people with an interest in pre-war China.

Check the WRL catalog for Midnight in Peking

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From watching Jurassic Park it seems plausible that Michael Crichton thought, “Hey, what if dinosaurs and people had been around at the same time? People are so helpless. We are small, with no claws and teensy teeth.  We’d just get eaten!”  Which made an exciting (albeit gory) story.  I am guessing that the idea for Micro started in a similar way.  Michael Crichton thought, “What if people were as small as insects? We’re just soft and squishy.  No exoskeleton and only two legs.  We’d just get eaten!”

And sadly for the characters, that is exactly what happens in Micro.  Not for the faint hearted or the weak stomached, Micro is extremely violent and extremely gross. Have you ever seen a nature documentary where the parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the caterpillars, then the larvae hatch and eat the caterpillar from the inside out?  Yuk!  You can’t get much grosser than that.  But imagine the victim isn’t a caterpillar, but a person?  My stomach is uneasy just typing this.  But it doesn’t stop there, the many other nasty ways that insects have of killing and eating each other are explored in exciting, but grisly, detail in Micro.

Michael Crichton died in 2008 before Micro was finished.  To complete the book they selected Richard Preston, whose best books are non-fiction books about diseases and science, try The Hot Zone or Wild Trees.  I think this was an inspired combination.  The book has Michael Crichton’s thrilling pace and Richard Preston’s eye for plausible biological detail.

Micro was an exciting, escapist read that I consumed in one weekend.  Perhaps it is not great literature, and it didn’t receive very good reviews, but when you add an evil corporation, a mad scientist, an exotic tropical location, and a budding love affair, it kept me reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Micro.

 

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Childhood is different for everyone: some are idyllic and others are filled with heartache.  If you’re lucky, you grow up in a house with loving parents, siblings, and extended family.  There will be good friends, plenty to eat, a roof over your head, a solid education, and entertaining family vacations.

But what if your childhood was spent moving between countries and continents? Your scholastic education ended at 12 years old? To put food on the table, you had to beg on the streets? Chores involved supporting hundreds of people? What if your family was labeled a cult? What if a child who grew up in a cult broke free and started writing stories? Author Taylor Stevens did grow up this way, and she used her childhood experiences to create Vanessa Michael Munroe, the informationist.

Michael (as she’s known to her clients) is in the business of information.  Hired by corporations, governments, and those individuals who can afford her services, Michael gathers intelligence for them by inhabiting foreign countries and infiltrating all echelons of society.  In The Informationist, Michael is hired to find out how and where a Texas billionaire’s daughter went missing in Africa.  She’ll have no choice but to use all of her expertise and knowledge of modern Africa–and to confront her own personal demons–in order to reach her goal.

Stevens has created a fascinating character who speaks 22+ languages, can blend in anywhere by manipulating her androgynous features, and has an intelligence and ability to read people that makes her a force to be reckoned with.  Michael’s fierce instinct for self-preservation, unpredictable fatalistic tendency, and frightening efficiency blended with vulnerability make her an irresistible protagonist.  You’ll love this book if you enjoy the action, pacing, and intelligence found in the Bourne Legacy movies or if you find the victim/survivor nature of Lisbeth Salander’s character from the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy utterly compelling.  Not to mention, you’ll never look at the landscape and culture of Africa quite the same way again.

Check the WRL catalog for The Informationist

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This week’s posts are from WRL Development Officer, Benjamin Goldberg.

I finally got around to The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  The book has been praised by many and now I can see why.  It’s an excellent story.  Knowing I would never find the time to read it, I decided to listen to the audio version.  This turned out to be a great choice.  Paul Michael reads exceptionally well, giving added life to each character by expertly using different voices for each one.  This also allows the listener to recognize when characters are speaking, so I could literally hear the voices as I made my way through the book.

Since this is a mystery, I don’t want to give too much away.  The hero is Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who finds himself unwittingly pulled into an ancient mystery that he is uniquely qualified to solve.  His knowledge of Holy Grail lore, Catholic Church history, and most importantly, the use of symbols in art, religion, and a secret society named The Priory of Sion, make him key to solving the puzzles laid before him by museum curator Jacques Saunière.  Joined in the hunt by cryptologist Sophie Neveu and Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, the trio trail blaze through France and Great Britain seeking answers.  Their quest is made all the more compelling because they are being pursued not only by the French police (Langdon is accused of murder), but also by a fanatical Opus Dei monk named Silas.  Further, Silas’ actions are directed by “the Teacher,” a character who stays in the shadows for most of the story.

Brown writes excellent descriptions, delightful dialogue, and maintains an attention to detail that is critical to keeping the plot on track.  He moves the plot along at a lightening fast pace.  It is easy to miss that the main action occurs in fewer than 36 hours.  Robert Langdon is believable as an Indiana Jones style character, albeit more academic and less adventuresome.  Like a ballerina whose every move has purpose, each of the supporting characters are included to expand the story in ways that are both ingenious and entertaining.

After reading or listening to The Da Vinci Code, you may wish to check out the library’s copy of Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the Da Vinci Code edited by Dan Burstein.  It can help you sort out which parts of the book are research-based, which are entirely fabricated and which fall somewhere in between.  Brown took great care to blur the lines between “truth” and fiction, which again adds to the readers’ experience.  The Da Vinci Code is a tightly knit mystery that includes plenty of action, a little romance, and a surplus of puzzles within puzzles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Da Vinci Code

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Toby Ball is an author with a talent for finding today’s hot button issues in settings of the past. He writes a unique brand of thriller/mystery, set in an unnamed city in historical periods that closely mirror those of the United States, but that use original characters and an atmosphere that remains deliberately hazy, hallucinatory, and unsettling.

His first book, The Vaults, was set in the 30s, in a time when corrupt politicians, cops, and businessmen were altering both past and present by tampering with archives. His second book, Scorch City, takes place in the same city, and features a couple of common characters, but doesn’t require knowledge of the first to enjoy. This time the action takes place just after a big war, presumably WWII.

As Scorch City opens, the residents of a negro shantytown are caught in a dilemma. The body of an emaciated, diseased woman has turned up on the bank of the river next to their community. Someone from their community might be responsible for her death, but the body also could have been planted by racists or the rabidly anti-communist cops or politicians who are whipping up their own popularity by going after the shantytown. They don’t want to cover up an investigation, but they do make a request of journalist Frank Frings and detective Piet Westermann:  help them just a little by moving the body downriver before “discovering” it.

Thus begins a complicated investigation where the need to know the truth about a potential murder or epidemic is tempered by the need for sensitivity in a situation where a black community with a tenuous hold is endangered and the whole city could be consumed in the resulting conflagration.

Ball is a master at creating noble characters with conflicting loyalties. He slides gracefully between three viewpoints. Frings is a journalist whose dedication to objectivity is wavering and whose position is threatened by less ethical writers who don’t mind being the tools of corrupt politicians. Westermann is a good cop who wants to do the right thing, but he has a history of cowardice under pressure and some moral problems. He’s constantly under threat from colleagues who may be loyal to the department, but may be in the pocket of fascists. The third point-of-view character, a slide guitar player, remains more mysterious, but part of the fun of the book is figuring out the depth of his involvement.

All of this takes place against a background of impending violence and the strange influence of two religious sects with charismatic leaders: Christian snake handlers with a mysterious agenda on one side and practitioners of some kind of voudou on the other. When a second woman in similar condition turns up and others are discovered to be missing, the mystery deepens.

If you like crime or historical novels, but are looking for something a little different, you could not do better than Toby Ball . His books are suspenseful, a little trippy, deeply atmospheric, and relevant to contemporary political concerns.

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Christine wakes one morning to find herself sleeping next to a stranger. She does not remember how she wound up in bed with this older man– she must have been very drunk– and she is dismayed to see that he wears a wedding ring. When she finds her way to the bathroom, the woman in the mirror is at least twenty years too old.

It takes a while for Christine to come to grips with the truth. She is no longer a college student but a middle-aged woman. The man in the bed is Ben, her husband. Decades ago, while she was in her late twenties, Christine suffered a head injury that left her with an exceedingly rare form of amnesia. Every night her mind resets. She can make new memories but cannot retain them the next day. Ben patiently explains all of this– but of course he must explain it again the next morning, and the next, and the next.

And that would be that– a strange but directionless story, Groundhog Day meets Memento replayed in an endless loop– but for the phone call Christine receives. The caller claims to be her doctor. (Is he telling the truth? Christine cannot ask Ben, who has left for work.) Dr. Nash suggests that Christine look in the bottom of her bedroom closet. Though she is uneasy, Christine follows the doctor’s cryptic advice and finds a hidden journal. Its pages are filled with her own handwriting, and she has left a message for herself to find: “Don’t trust Ben.”

The atmosphere is tense throughout S. J. Watson’s debut. We learn early on that something isn’t right, that the pieces just don’t add up, but we are helplessly bound by Christine’s own limitations. As with the protagonist of Turn of Mind (another 2011 debut, reviewed here yesterday), mental disease has rendered our narrator unreliable, and the other characters do not seem to be entirely trustworthy, either. Someone is lying, but every step closer to the truth puts Christine in more danger– and even when we as readers figure out the mystery, there’s not a thing we can do but watch our heroine greet each new day with a blank slate, innocent of whatever perils she may have unearthed the day before. It is an absolutely nerve-wracking plot device that makes this an unusually strong thriller.

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Amanda O’Toole is dead. The attacker bashed in her head and surgically removed four of her fingers. Shortly before she was murdered, Amanda had fought with her neighbor, Dr. Jennifer White, a retired orthopedic surgeon. Jennifer is probably guilty as sin, but the police don’t have the proof they need, and the suspect refuses to confess.

Jennifer is not being uncooperative on purpose. She can’t confess because she can’t remember if she committed the crime or not. Most days she can’t remember that her friend Amanda has even died in the first place. Jennifer is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Jennifer is the very definition of the unreliable narrator. Her fractured version of reality offers only meager clues about the events surrounding Amanda’s death. We must instead rely on Jennifer’s son, daughter, and caretaker, but they are hiding their own secrets, and they are in no hurry to aid the police in the murder investigation.

Alice LaPlante’s debut is a very strange thriller. The crime is committed before the story opens, and no one is worried about the murderer striking again, yet the atmosphere crackles with nervous tension. The book is a page-turner, but each turn of the page accelerates Jennifer’s unraveling, making it less and less likely that we’ll ever learn what really happened. But even though LaPlante rejects most of the conventions of the thriller genre, she still writes a harrowing story. It is scary, not for the crime, but for the horrible, painfully realistic treatment of Alzheimer’s.

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It takes a special kind of writer to see a connection between two disparate events and create a bright line that links the two. In his newest book, Michael Robotham does just that by connecting the global financial crisis with the anarchy in Iraq.  (Please, please, please let it be fiction!)

First, a word about two of the main characters. One of the leads is Vincent Ruiz, a retired London Detective Inspector who is a main character in five of Robotham’s previous books, along with psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, who has a supporting role in The Wreckage. It’s important for readers to know that reading the earlier books isn’t necessary to understand and enjoy The Wreckage, because Robotham easily introduces both characters and fleshes them out without overly referencing the previous books.  The downside is that they are such well-written characters that you’ll want to go back to the start (Suspect) for more.

Ruiz’s story is but one thread in the novel, and readers can be pardoned for thinking that Robotham takes up too many threads in the early going. By the middle of the story the strands start coming together and it is readily apparent that he is weaving a complex tapestry that defies a simplistic approach. The other storylines include a traumatized young woman who runs a con game with her boyfriend; a woman searching for her missing husband; and a freelance journalist working in occupied Iraq.  To say any more would be to not just give away the story, but to spoil the pleasure of watching Robotham create.

It’s not uncommon for reviewers to call fiction about current events “an intelligent thriller.”  Sometimes that makes readers feel better about their pleasure reading (remember The First Law of Reading – “never apologize for your reading taste“).  Sometimes it fulfills the contractual obligations of the publisher’s other authors.   In the case of The Wreckage, it is dead on.  If you want to read one of the most intelligent thrillers of the last couple of years, here’s your book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Wreckage

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The man who thinks of himself as Daniel Hayes isn’t sure of  his real name.  All he has to go by is the insurance card he finds in a BMW he discovers after crawling onto a rocky beach.  Some clothes in the trunk fit him, the cash in an envelope fits him (plus it’s the right color), and he knows all about the gun in the glove compartment.  Based on the trash in the car and the California license plate, he figures whoever left it there (himself?) had driven a long way.

Adopting that persona, “Daniel Hayes” tries to reconstruct a possible life. Was he a carpenter? A butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker?  Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy?  One faint clue comes from a television rerun and the connection he feels to one of its characters.  But before he has time dig deeper, he’s on the run from the cops and heading to the West Coast.

At the same time, a woman in Los Angeles is interrupted in her shower by a coolly vicious character asking for Daniel Hayes.  A young woman is staking out Hayes’ house, watching for a chance to break in and search the place.  And an LA Sheriff’s detective is searching for Daniel Hayes to question him in the disappearance of his famous wife.  When–if– the cross-country traveler shows up, he’s going to be a very popular man, but he won’t have a clue why.

As “Daniel Hayes” begins to unravel the truth behind his memory loss, he is tormented by dreams that convict him of some horrible crime, but in the unsettling way of dreams, they provide him no explanations.  He also learns that the man he believes himself to be is not the man others know him to be.  Sakey uses that gap to explore the concept of identity, but always within the context of a story of increasing complexity and tension.

I had first read Sakey’s The Amateurs, a fun book in its own right, and really liked the character Bennett.  Perhaps not “liked,” but “knew I’d remember as a bad guy capable of anything.”  Bennett makes a follow-up appearance in this story, right back in the role he had in the earlier book– as Sakey describes him, the man who knows people sin, and who makes it his business to be there when they do.  The leverage he holds, and his chilling readiness to use it, gives him any number of frightened but useful tools wherever he goes.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes is a perfect summertime read– fast and nimble, but with enough insight into people and places to give it a noir sensibility.  It’s the kind of writing that makes it more memorable than the usual mass-produced suspects on the bestseller list, and one you’d really like to recommend to discerning thriller readers.  It is unfortunate that Sakey and his friends Brett Battles and Gregg Hurwitz (whom he acknowledges in the book) are better writers than the brand-name guys.  With their talents, all three should be sitting on top of those lists.

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